01 Slot Canyon Skyward.jpg

Skylight in Slot Canyon

Overview:

This short hike takes you south along a wide canyon bottom, diverts unexpectedly into a vegetative veil and enters a magic little excursion west into a slot canyon. Like most slot canyons it makes up for its short length with a twisting path, cool air, mellow tread and dramatic sense of place. If you are near Silver City (in southwest New Mexico) and have a few hours for a stroll on hot day, then this could be the ticket. On rainy days, however, give this hike a pass.

Driving Directions:

FR 88

The turnoff to Forest Road 88 from NM-35. Going north it will be on your left

Warning! I misplaced my notes on the ride and am mostly just quoting Google. The description of Forest Rd 88, however, is accurate.

  • In Silver City, starting at the intersection of NM-90 and US-180 head east on US-180. In the City NM-90 is signed “N. Hudson St” while US-180 is signed “Silver Heights Blvd”.
  • After 7.5 on US-180 miles turn left onto NM-152
  • After 14.3 miles on NM-152 turn left onto NM-35
  • After 19.5 miles on NM-35, turn left onto Forest Road 88. This intersection is not signed so watch your odometer and look for a gate made up of pipes and chainlink fencing on your left. Beside the gate there is a brown “vertical route marker” indicating that this is  Forest Road 88 (FR-88).
  • After 1.3 miles on FR-88 come to the trailhead next to a decaying corral.

At the start of FR-88 you will have to get out of your car, open the gate, drive through the date, stop and close the gate.

FR-88 is in somewhat rough shape. Drivers with high suspension vehicles will have no problem. The mighty Camry, however, had to go very slowly . Even then it was often necessary to stop and kick the larger rocks off the road’s prominent crown. At approximately 0.3 miles the road crosses over an 20-foot (7 meters) embankment that extends across the canyon. The embankment is steep on both sides. The ascent to the top of the embankment is not a problem. On descent, however, you’ll be flying blind (unless you are on a motor cycle) since your hood will block all sight lines to the road. You will probably want to stop at the top and check that the road is still there!

Trailhead:

03 Water hazards on road past trailhead

Water hazard on road just past the trailhead.

The trailhead is just a wide spot where FR-88 intersects with FR-4078T (on older maps this is identified as FR-4202S) and FR-4078R. An aged corral marks this intersection. In another 100 feet the road drops into the river bed and generally stays there. High clearance vehicles should not have a problem with the river bed but sedans should be parked at the intersection.  There are no services at this trailhead.

Data:

  • starting elevation: 6240 feet
  • ending elevation: 6480 feet
  • net elevation: 240 feet
  • distance: 1 mile (one way, without continuing up Skates)
  • maps: North Star Mesa, Allie Canyon and Twin Sisters USGS quadrangles

The departure from NM-35 onto FR-88 is shown on North Star Mesa quadrangle, the departure from the bottom of Skates Canyon into the slot is shown on Allie Canyon quadrangle, and the upper reaches of the hike into the slot canyon is on Twin Sisters quadrangle.

Description:

04 Tent Rock in Skates Canyon

The tent rock is on the left while the departure point is via the stream bed coming out of the trees on the right.

From the trailhead continue along the road as it heads south on the canyon floor. In about 100 yards the roadbed enters the streambed, which contains some pretty large rocks. It is something to watch for if you’re driving rather than hiking. On this date, just past the end of a monsoon, there was water in the canyon bottom. It is a pleasure to see, given that about a third of the state is experiencing extreme drought or worse.

05 wind and water sculpture

Water sculpture

Skates Canyon has relatively low and vegetated walls while the bottom is broad and sandy. As you near the half-mile point keep your eyes open for a “tent rock” that adorns the west canyon wall. The main canyon swings sharply to the left (to the east) at the foot of this structure but you want to study the vegetation just to the right of this rock. Find a way past the greenery and enter a much narrower canyon with water sculpted rock walls. The bed of the canyon narrows quickly and as the canyon narrows the walls steepen.

07 View up slot canyon

Steep walls

True vertical walls arrive in less than 200 feet. At first the walls are still low enough to admit considerable light, so you may find yourself pushing through vegetation for another 100 feet or so. The walls are conglomerate, with reassuringly hard cement holding the entire mass together. (This is in marked contrast to the loose rubble that characterizes the walls in the Robledo slot canyon).  At this time of year short stretches of running water arose from and disappeared into the sandy stream bed.

07 views vertical

The view vertical

As the walls rise higher the canyon floor darkens and cools; vegetation disappears. The walking is generally pretty easy, save where water occupies the the breadth of the floor. The slot meanders continuously, making it hard to track your exact position. Navigation is not a problem, however, since your only real options are (1) forward or (2) backward. There is a four foot high waterfall about a quarter mile up the canyon. There is a large log pinned to the southern wall, which makes the climb over the falls quite easy.

08 Waterfall and webbing

Waterfall, webbing and pole (for scale)

In contrast, a second waterfall at 0.5 miles up the slot is something of a challenge. It rises 10 to 12 feet and has overhangs that make the ascent problematic. Currently there is water coming over the falls to add a slippery quality to the issue. Most visitors will want to turn around here. There is a battered length of green webbing draped down the falls. It is not recommended that you trust your well-being to this cordage. I chose to climb the falls (experiencing occasional regrets) without my pack and used the webbing to drag my pack up after I got on top.

Above the falls the walls are much lower and soon begin to lean back. In less than 500 feet, about a mile from the trailhead, the vegetation becomes vexatious. If you’ve left your machete at home you may find that it is time to turn back.

On return to the bottom of the main canyon I chose to turn south (right on descent) and follow the canyon bottom (see the map, above). It is a very pleasant ramble on cool September day but not especially wild. Judging from the tracks on the canyon floor there must be occasions when ATVers congregate here. This “extra” leg to the south is perfectly pleasant but does not have a particularly striking quality.

Recommendations:

Pick another destination if there is rain in the forecast. The logs along the canyon bottom are evidence that the water flows can be violent on occasion.

That said, the gentle flow of water in the canyon bottom on this date was a very welcome sight. It is not, however, guaranteed. You will want to bring your own drinking water. A liter was more than sufficient on this cool day.

I suspect that the canyon bottom can be icy in the winter time. It may be best to reserve this for the warmer months.

Links:

Doug Scott has a great website that provides a great introduction to New Mexico’s slot canyons (and waterfalls), including this one.

Southern New Mexico Explorer has some great photos of a canyon termed “Mossy Slot Canyon” off of Skates Canyon. I’m not 100% certain that it is the same canyon as described here, but many of the photos look familiar.